Jonathan Rimmer talks to The National’s founding editor about plurality of opinion and the need for less antagonism between pro-independence supporters and the Scottish media
AT first glance, Richard Walker is like most senior Scottish newspaper journalists: white, male, middle aged and well spoken.
When I meet him in Glasgow, he arrives in formal clothing with a noisy mobile in hand. But the smart dress and sense of urgency isn’t due to editorial work. "I’ve been talking to various people about Sturgeon’s commitment to hold another referendum," he says with a beaming smile. "It’s already really, really exciting."
Support for independence isn’t uncommon in the Scottish newspaper industry, but Walker has arguably done more to promote plurality in the debate than any other journalist in terms of press coverage. He led the Sunday Herald to become the first mainstream publication to support independence in 2014, and founded the daily pro-indy paper The National a year later.
“You go into journalism with a sense of ego, which is quickly destroyed when you learn how to do news properly.” Richard Walker
In the words of Michael Gray, one of the columnists Walker commissioned early on at The National: "When the history books are written on the last few years, Richard’s story will not be forgotten."
Although his conversion to the Yes cause is relatively recent, Walker has always been something of an idealist. Like many, his initial interest in journalism came from a love of English and a desire to bring about change.
He says: "I went to college because I really liked writing, which was a terrible reason because I had to unlearn everything and relearn it all over again. You go into journalism with a sense of ego, which is quickly destroyed when you learn how to do news properly.
The National’s first edition
"I was one of those people who had specialisms and things I wanted to do. I harboured some ambition to write about music. I also saw journalism as a way to campaign for change in Scotland on things like drugs and poverty and all the rest of it.
"I learned you have to pick up the tools of journalism and only later on do you get to use those tools to do something exciting."
“I learned you have to pick up the tools of journalism and only later on do you get to use those tools to do something exciting.” Richard Walker
Following production roles with the Daily Record and Scotland on Sunday, Walker got his opportunity, joining the Sunday Herald team upon launch in 1999. Despite being established as a sister to The Herald, officially the longest running national newspaper in the world, the paper was intended as a bright, vibrant reflection of modern Scotland.
"I think we felt like outsiders to some extent when we started," says Walker. "I was frequently told it wouldn’t last, that we were just a newspaper for west end hipsters or whatever they were called back then.
"I suppose we had a very progressive view of Scotland. We were firmly left-of-centre and very socially radical. There was a definite campaigning spirit to the paper. We supported the repeal of Section 28, which was a clause that stopped schools promoting homosexuality. People talk about being the independence referendum being divisive, but that was a really bitter battle."
Then there was the Iraq war, which Walker pinpoints as the moment the newspaper’s support for the Labour party died. "It was as close to a universal opinion held by the staff as you could get. Our coverage of the conflict went global, partly because American publications and the like weren’t reporting it in the same way.
"If you remember the 'dodgy dossier' – our paper actually had it two days before Channel 4 broke it, but unfortunately we couldn’t publish it in time. Our support for Labour really took a battering.
Walker’s support for independence isn’t an isolated political stance that he’s happened to adopt, but has become his raison d’etre as a journalist.
"When I became editor in 2005, I wasn’t an independence supporter. It was a long process of coming to terms with the fact that Scotland under Labour rule was just not going to change and achieve its potential without something radical."
While Scotland’s political landscape has slowly shifted in the SNP’s favour, Scotland’s press hasn’t. Walker’s support for independence isn’t an isolated political stance that he’s happened to adopt, but has become his raison d’etre as a journalist. Perhaps that’s why he took the momentous decision to launch a new daily newspaper in the aftermath of the 2014 referendum.
The Sunday Herald front page announcing support for Scottish independence
He says: "It never occurred to me that Newsquest would agree to launch a paper but they did. We had three weeks to pull it together and it was scary, scary stuff.
"There were no dummy runs – I just pulled together a team from a small hit list. When we sat down to do the first copy, we had no idea whether we’d get one out.
"A lot of people said we were crazy to start a newspaper, but that’s what it had to be. It couldn’t be a website because there were pro-indy websites that did that job. It had to be something people could hold."
“I still think the media is still far too imbalanced on the issue, but you can see there’s been a softening of antagonism by papers like the Daily Record.” Richard Walker
I ask whether another newspaper switching to support independence would be damaging to The National, where he still works as a consultant editor. He says he’s not overly bothered.
"Winning the referendum is more important," he says. "I still think the media is still far too imbalanced on the issue, but you can see there’s been a softening of antagonism by papers like the Daily Record.
"If anything, independence supporters need to reciprocate. We can’t be holding grudges – you don’t get independence by calling your No voting neighbour a traitor every day."
What about other areas of political imbalance? "Independence is the only area that counts at the moment," he says. "When it comes to it, the big questions are still there for newspapers – there’s still left and right and there’s still right and wrong.
"We’re not going to have those discussions properly, in my view, without independence."
“If anything, independence supporters need to reciprocate. We can’t be holding grudges – you don’t get independence by calling your No voting neighbour a traitor every day.” Richard Walker
Having taken voluntary redundancy from both The National and Sunday Herald in 2015, you might assume Walker is taking a step back in the twilight of his career. However, with a General Election only a few weeks away and another independence referendum possibly on the horizon, Walker is still keen to be involved in what he sees as a significant point in Scotland’s history.
"Working on two papers in tandem for a year was exhausting," he says. "After making my share of cuts at a difficult time, I had to step back and allow someone else the opportunity to make those big savings and decisions. I’m happier about it now.
"I think now is a great time to get involved in journalism and it’s still a great profession to work in. This new generation are having to work longer hours for less money, but Scotland is a hugely exciting place to be at the moment."
Picture courtesy of The Drum
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